Blackalicious makes me believe that musicians can make a difference in the world around them. If, by some bizarre and improbable chain of events, their music became ingrained in the psyche of Baltimore, this city would be better. More people would think about who they are and what they do, and would demand excellence of their children, their schools, their leaders, their neighbors, and themselves. Fewer people would get caught up in the small-minded violence that's resulted in a skyrocketing homicide rate and a generation of kids who believe guns are legitimate tools of negotiation.
With all that said, I'm a wee bit disappointed by Nia. That's probably not fair, because 2005's The Craft is one of my favorite albums of the past few years. Most artists get better with time, and I shouldn't expect Blackalicious to have had a fully formed vision on their 2000 debut, even if it was released after nearly a decade of 12" singles.
But I'm still disappointed.
There are some really good songs on Nia. "Cliff Hanger" sounds like a musical version of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, and suggests that maybe DJ Shadow and The Gift of Gab should've done those soundtracks instead of RZA. The various interpretations on "Nia" that are scattered throughout the album help to cement a theme while dabbling in different musical textures. "Shallow Days" and "As the World Turns" reflect a reliance on strength and spirituality that is desperately necessary as we begin the third decade of NWA-inspired thug-kill-thug idiocy. "Sleep" is a nice way to wind down into a mellow frame of mind, and it would have been an excellent way to close the album -- although "Finding" does work better as a closer, given the musical scope of the entire project.
The strong points are offset by songs that are almost -- but not quite -- special. "A to G" is fun, but it feels like the musical equivalent of a project that an art professor would assign to a freshman color theory class. "Dream Seasons" and "Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme" both have great grooves, but they fade into ambient background noise. Songs like these, songs that just miss the mark, are the rule on Nia, not the exception. (On a personal note, it's nice that they included Nikki Giovanni's "Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)," because their interpretation is interesting and it will introduce her work to a new audience. But Giovanni irritates me. I heard her speak many years ago, and she came across as an arrogant pseudo-intellectual with poorly formed ideas who talked down to her audience. I don't do well with self-important elitists who feel the need to prove their superiority in front of 20 people at a bookstore in Jersey. Who knows... maybe she's come down from her ivory tower since then.)
Nia's baseline is set early, and the music never falls below that mark. It's consistent, and it's consistently good. It's just not as exciting or cohesive as what they would do a few years later.
If I hadn't heard The Craft first, I'd probably love this album. The production is strong, the words are creative, the messages are meaningful, and the music is soulful. Nia is a very good album, but it's a bit too self-conscious and contrived to reach greatness.
The artwork is striking. I love the studio shots, and the collage and color effects work well. I only wish they'd included lyrics.
Listen if you like: Jurassic 5, A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Shadow, Wu-Tang Clan, The Coup, Nikki Giovanni
If it were food, it'd be: I'm still waiting for that Blackalicious Burger at Soul Vegetarian.